Why do people love money?
There’s a connection between money and mortality. It’s no coincidence that wealthy people have longer life-expectancy: they have better healthcare, more time for the gym, better food, safer automobiles. Money is power and money is time, which is to say that money is a unit of life. Not for quality of life, but quantity and something else, something you could call flexibility. Because it affects what you can do—your powers. If you’re rich enough, you might even have superpowers. Bill Gates has superpowers, evidently. I gather he has decided to rid the world of malaria.
While touring with this book, I ended up in a nice town car one day, and the driver told me about this time he drove the Saudi prince around. The prince and his entourage, all his closest friends, came to Seattle and remained on Saudi time while in Seattle, lunching in the middle of the night and so on. They kept restaurants and movie theaters open all night. There was apparently this one colossal multiplex near their hotel that reserved a theater just for them, kept it ready to go at any time, with someone on staff around the clock, always ready to fire up whatever movie they wanted to watch. And there was a full buffet there, at the theater, always. Just in case, at some point, they were taken by the whim to scoot over and watch the new Harry Potter movie, while noshing on a platter of sashimi. A platoon of chauffeurs had to stay at the five-star hotel, too, taking shifts. It’s as if that prince has manifested a daydream he had when he was twelve years old.
Mainly, though, on the surface, money promises freedom from bullshit and from scary unpleasant things, like being evicted, or having to tell your kid that she can’t go to a nice college because it costs too much, or the fear that you will end up broke and totally alone in your dotage, having to chose between heating your apartment or feeding yourself.
You wrote a novel about a man who is excited to be working for a notoriously rapacious hedge fund, but this man is also meant to be the protagonist of your book. What were you thinking?
Money is deeply taboo, and it’s all the more verboten among people who consider themselves artists or writers. So we end up in a situation where no one wants to write about money, or if they do it’s very tongue-in-cheek, it’s satire. That’s just a way for authors to distance themselves from the subject, I think. Like when an actor plays an unlikable part a little too broadly, so the viewer will always remember that the actor and the part he’s playing should not be confused.
But a fleeting glance at our recent history reveals that economics and finance are not just the engines of our era, not just what defines everything about our time, but they’re also spectacularly dramatic. The stories are very personal, very emotional. Still, the world of finance remains a remarkably bizarre blind-spot in contemporary literary fiction. It’s as if literary-minded people have quietly agreed that finance is somehow not central to the zeitgeist.
I’ve met these people, the people who work at hedge funds, and they aren’t the soulless monsters of Brett Easton Ellis books, or whatever. They’re not blonde, polo-playing guys named Thad. Maybe that’s how it was in the eighties, but now they are like anyone else who has a nice degree from a nice school and who ends up working a nice job in New York City. There are all sorts of people. That guy who just got collared for insider trading, the fund manager at Galleon, he was an obese Sri Lankan guy, very affable, apparently, and an avid fan of American football.
How much sympathy do you feel for the protagonist of your novel, Gabriel de Boya?
I feel a lot of sympathy for him. He’s hapless, especially at first, and understandably terrified of failure, understandably enticed by the potential rewards of his job. Eventually he gets the hang of his job, because he’s smart and capable. He means well, but his good intentions get subsumed in an oncoming wave of other more immediate concerns. It’s one thing to mean well when life is pretty simple, but quite another when you’re in the kind of high-pressure situations that he finds himself in.
Would you accept Gabriel’s job if it were offered to you?
There was a time when I would have. Absolutely. For most of my twenties. Now, I have a wife and a baby and—well, I just couldn’t be on the road that much, for one thing. And I wouldn’t be comfortable with the amount of lying he has to do.
Speaking of lying, you still claim that you repeated fourth grade because you’d spent the previous several years in Sri Lanka where the foreign school wasn’t up to snuff. But actually you repeated kindergarten in the US before you went to Sri Lanka. Why lie about that?
I’m not sure. I guess it’s just force of habit. Thanks, by the way, for phrasing that in a way that makes me look like a hypocrite.
Is it true that you can’t ride a bicycle?
Yes, yes, it’s true.
I’ve always been too embarrassed to learn, afraid of falling down and looking like a fool. Maybe I’m just very sensitive to shame, so I never learned to ride a bike because I was afraid of falling down and looking like an imbecile. And I think it’s the kind same fear of humiliation that got me lying about my delayed graduation from high school.
This embarrassment, is that also why you never learned to ski on water or snow, drive a manual transmission, snowboard, surf—
[Interrupting] Yes, that’s mostly the same thing.
If you’re sensitive to shame, why write fiction? That seems very masochistic.
It does, doesn’t it? Truth be told, I hadn’t realized how degrading and humiliating writing would be when I set out—I didn’t realize how much rejection was involved. In retrospect, I see it’s been good for me to stick with it—you know, like becoming a pilot if you’re afraid of heights.
You keep your rejection letters, I gather.
I do, yes. I keep them all.
How many rejections have you received?
Maybe a thousand. They’re in a shoebox. It’s stuffed full of them. It’s a very heavy box. And the box is a Barney’s New York shoebox, as if the luxury of the box were some kind of compensation.
What was wrong with your writing? Why did no one want to publish it?
I think the early work was melodramatic. After an atrocious “practice novel,” which I finished in 2002, I wrote a number of very derivative stories. I remained ambitious, at least. Ambitious enough to sit there writing three or four hours a day, seven days a week, for years and years. But it was mortifying. I had told everyone I knew that I was going to be a writer and they all knew that I was writing all the time, but nothing was coming of it.
In the summer of 2005, my writing finally turned a corner. I was in the middle of the MFA program at the University of Washington. The first year at the UW had been a deep low-point for me. I got pummeled with rejection and some very demoralizing critiques. It really broke me down. I began to realize how much higher I needed to aim, how much better I needed to be. At the end of that year I had a very revelatory class with David Shields, who said something to the effect of: “Do you really just want to be this dutiful craftsman, creating these quaint stories that are totally antique, totally separated from the world we inhabit?” He said he couldn’t stand to even read that stuff, and I had to admit that I felt the same way.
That summer, Shields got me reading J.M. Coetzee. I went to Ecuador and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read.
And when I came back, I was a very different kind of writer. Within a year, I had started winning some awards and fellowships, had started publishing in some well-regarded literary journals and anthologies. Most of what I’ve written since then has been published.
What would you have done if your writing hadn’t turned the corner?
I don’t know. I had burned my bridges pretty thoroughly by the time I finished the MFA. I didn’t have a Plan B, which is probably partially why I was so desperate to succeed. I think it was Rick Kenny, maybe not, but it was someone on the faculty at the UW, who pointed out to me that if you have a Plan B as a writer it will eventually become your Plan A. You get a job at Microsoft expecting that the healthy wage will finance the writing of your first novel, but actually you’ve already forfeited. It’s over. Unless your life depends on it, you’ll never put enough of yourself on the line.
I had too much on the line to let my writing stay shoddy. It’s sort of like that over-quoted Faulkner thing about how the writer’s only responsibility is to his art and so on.
No, don’t toss the quotation off. Look it up and give us the whole thing.
Alright—it’s from his Paris Review interview. And the whole conversation is like that, he’s very blustery, very insistent, and I’ve always suspected he was into his cups at the time. Suspiciously, he keeps talking about how important whisky is. Anyway, the most famous part goes: “[The writer] will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can’t get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.”
And you are on board with that? You’re like: ‘I can’t ride a bike or ski down a hill, but on the upside I’m profoundly selfish and vampiric?’
Well, at the risk of attracting a lot of indignant comments, is there another kind of writer?
Let’s just admit that, statistically, it’s unbelievably hard to get anywhere by writing so-called literary fiction—it’s a crazy occupation to take up, almost anachronistic, you might as well try to be a professional harpsichordist. You sit there making up this story and then you expect random people to pay for the privilege of spending fifteen hours alone with that story, partaking of your sumptuous prose and blistering insights. It requires a preposterous sense of self-worth. Or, more accurately, you need a delicate combination of self-confidence and self-doubt: enough of one to do the work, enough of the other to honestly question its value.
Unless you’re blessed with tremendous luck or talent, it takes a while, too, so you can become kind of desperate, while you’re trying to make it happen. Margaret Atwood wrote, “When I found myself a writer at the age of sixteen, money was the last thing on my mind, but it shortly became the first.” She isn’t saying that she was greedy, but that if you’re deadly serious about trying to find the time to write, you’re going to have to learn to fight your corner.
I think I’m pretty nice, actually, pretty well-meaning, but I’d be lying if I claimed I’m not a little coldblooded, too. I’ll call in favors with anyone I’ve ever met. No generosity offered will be refused. I’ll write all night if I’m left to my own devices. I’ll sneak away from a party to write, and I like parties.
There’s a long tradition of the children of writers resenting their parents for being ego-maniacal workaholics. As a new father, I wonder if that’s a concern.
Right, like that whole ghastly situation with Alice Walker and her daughter—vintage writer behavior.
But I don’t think I could ever be like that. Still, I guess I recognize the impulse—there’s an inclination to be a bit like that dude in The Shining. Wasn’t Salinger like that, too? There are other examples, too many to count. The memoirs by the traumatized offspring of well-regarded writers could fill a small library.
Are these writers abusive and mean no matter what, or does it happen after the success comes?
I don’t know. I bet William Burroughs would be a terrible father, regardless. I do think that novels, in particular, benefit from extended immersion—you need to get lost in that other world for a long time if you’re going to write it in a way that a reader will be able to get lost in it, too.
But how weird can you be without money and enablers? Poor people don’t get to be loopy—it’s just not an option. Howard Hughes. Citizen Kane. Donald Trump. You can’t be that bizarro unless you’re rich. You take someone who’s slightly off kilter, a young Michael Jackson, say, and then just pump their bank account full of cash, and the crazy just takes hold. That kind of free time, that kind of power, it isn’t good for people who are built a little odd in the first place. It amplifies your eccentricities. If Michael Jackson had blown out his voice box when he was a young child, he’d probably be a bus driver right now.
If you got rich, would you be a weirdo?
No, I’ve lived too long disguised as a fairly sane person to really change, at this point. If I had become rich when I was in my mid-twenties, I might have become a nutter—some ghoulish and debauched guy on a yacht in the Mediterranean. You know, very promiscuous and not much fun. Maybe not? But I could imagine that, I could imagine myself being soured, by now. I’d be a loon, but not in a fun way.
Now, I’ve got a wife I adore and a baby who’s not too bad, either, and we have organized this very specific life that I love a lot. There’s a structure and it matters to me. I’ll kill anyone who tries to destroy that structure. If it’s the zombie apocalypse, I’ll be up in the attic on the first day, sniping anyone with so much as a limp.
What does this have to do with what you’d be like if you got rich?
I’m just saying, I’m a bit too bashed-in by life to get really kooky. In my twenties, when I was trying to arrange my adult identity, my ego got beat up by that barrage of rejections. I think that rejection scarred me, in a healthy way. And, importantly, a lot of friends and family have died in the last few years. So there’s been a pretty thorough humbling.
If I got rich now, I’d probably just move into a nicer house, get some new furniture, hire a gardener. I’d probably take more holidays. And I’d refuse offers for conferences.
You were on-track to be a very robust wage-earner, there. If you had remained on course at the think tank, or had continued writing about economics, instead of turning to fiction, you might have ended up at a hedge fund. Backing up a little, can you talk about that period of your life—about how you ended up working as a hack economist for a think tank?
After graduating from college I met this young woman at a cocktail party, about my age, who was, remarkably, a fellow at a think tank in DC. I told her I’d studied international relations, with a focus on economics. Two weeks later, I was living in DC interning at the think tank.
Another couple months and I was a “researcher,” co-authoring reports Those first reports were the subject of articles in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. It should have been thrilling, but I was a child—my most recent job had been flipping burgers at a campus diner— so I didn’t even know enough to be excited. I had no idea that I had just jumped to the head of the line.
Soon I hatched the idea that I’d move to Ecuador, which was going through a dire political and financial crisis at the time. There were regular revolutions and the government had decided to pulp their own currency altogether, just close the central bank and use US dollars instead for all transactions. My bosses said it sounded like a great idea, as long as they didn’t have to pay me more than the $10 an hour they were already giving me.
So, I became an “adjunct fellow” of this think tank, living in Quito. It was exciting for a while, but I’d never really pictured myself as a hack economist for a right-wing think tank, so I finally quit and returned to the States.
I hadn’t been home long when, reading some articles about Ecuador one day I noticed the think tank had published one of my pieces. The byline indicated that I was a “senior associate of EMG.” I had never heard of EMG, so I looked it up, and learned that it was a financial consulting firm, which operated a dubious-sounding hedge fund, and they had the same mailing address as my erstwhile, and ostensibly non-profit think tank.
My resume was a confusing document for a while there: recent jobs included tending bar in a pool hall and being a senior associate of a financial consulting firm called The Emerging Markets Group.
That’s when I started writing fiction in earnest.
Gabriel is surrounded and often influenced by four powerful women in his life—Fiona, Lenka, his mother, and Priya. How did these characters emerge?
The truth is that they emerged unconsciously, at first. Dr. Freud would, I’m sure, want to have a talk to me about that, but it’s true. Once it dawned on me what was going on, I realized it was one of the most important aspects of the novel. Gabriel is terribly uncertain about the shape his identity should take, and as a result he’s always under the sway of one or another of these women: he looks to them for cues, for affection, for lashings, and they either give him or don’t give him what he seeks, because they’re very different people. Ultimately, it’s a surprisingly matriarchal novel, especially given the title.
Some reviews of the book have said Gabriel is difficult to like because he’s a manipulator and a chameleon. You say he means well, but is also selfish—he embodies a wider moral ambiguity in the book. The novel’s politics are difficult to locate. How would you locate your own political point of view?
The long and short of it is that I’m center left. I agree with Jon Stewart on everything except, occasionally, for issues involving economics, which he often oversimplifies. In which case I’m with Paul Krugman. Rarely, I’ll part with Krugman and go with someone like Michael Spence. With economics, if the answer looks obvious, you’re probably not thinking about it hard enough.
I think it was Auden who said, “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” That’s a crucial idea for me, especially with this material.
I watched that fairly recent film adaptation of The Crucible the other day, and there was a beautiful argument at some point between Daniel Day-Lewis’s character and his wife. They were both completely right, but they also disagreed completely. I love those moments.
If I wanted to write an essay about international finance, I would have written an essay. I’d rather pose questions. That’s why I wrote a novel.
You set it in Bolivia during the ascension of Evo Morales, who’s widely seen as a hero of the left and a bane of the right. Is that why you chose Bolivia?
Yes and no. It was more than that. Bolivia is a geographically outrageous place, more moon than earth, and its history is rife with unbelievable tragicomedy. The landmass used to include what’s now northern Chile, but Bolivia hoisted the tax on bat guano (an ingredient in gunpowder) in the coastal cliffs, and Chile fought back. That’s how Bolivia came to be landlocked—in a war over bat shit. They still have a standing navy. File that away in the department of wishful thinking.
Bolivia is also the poorest country in South America. Its leaders, who have typically been pale-skinned and ivy-league educated, have been wildly corrupt and vile. And then Bolivia elected Evo Morales, its first indigenous leader, and the country is 70% indigenous. Evo’s as easy to vilify as he is to heroize, a complexity that I do adore, as you imply. But he’s also fun material because he’s reckless as all get out: there was a video recently of him playing soccer recently against some political rivals and he just kicked an opponent in the balls. Not very presidential! And he was a farmer before he became president—he’s not very educated, dropped out in eighth grade, but thanks to his wacky cocktail of policies, Bolivia is doing better than it has in a hundred years.
How do you see the political/financial narratives interrelated with the personal/romantic narratives?
That’s more or less the crux of the book, for me. The strategies employed for financial gain by the nefarious hedge fund are not, finally, very different from the strategies employed by a couple falling in love, or even a “virtuous” liberal like Gabriel’s mother. Everyone is advancing their personal agendas, and sometimes those agendas are attractive and sometimes they aren’t—sometimes they run parallel with each other and sometimes they don’t, but that doesn’t change how the system operates. Every love story is a negotiation, with shifting terms, between two people.
The problem for Gabriel, as it is for many ambitious young people, is that he is completely entranced by the game immediately in front of him, the 2-3 moves immediately ahead. But the game is longer than that.
This is exactly what happened to the players in Wall Street’s investment banks, who were so desperate to reap gains in the short term, in the quarter at hand, that they ignored the long view, and ended up making outrageously risky bets. They wound up destroying themselves, and, four years later, the world is still reeling from the cascading aftershocks of their miscalculation.